“To ask the ‘right’ question is far more important than to receive the answer. The solution of a problem lies in the understanding of the problem; the answer is not outside the problem, it is in the problem.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti, The Flight of the Eagle
“It is only with the heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Permaculture is one attempt to collect wisdom and good practices: from Nature and other systems, including human systems.
In Permaculture it is said that in the problem is the solution…and one of its most important principles as well as the starting point of any Permaculture design process is “observation & interaction”…
When I started in social scouts in Venezuela (a branch from the formal scout movement where we would go to marginalized areas and work with them around the many social/ecological issues they faced), one of the first things we were taught was the skill of observation: we would play games with closed eyes and by being exposed to things and then covered, after which we had to recall what we saw and describe the objects and their interactions.
This, we were told, was essential for our everyday “work” with communities and when we went to the wilderness to camp out: we should be fully aware of our surroundings, their story, their flora and fauna and so on…
Systems analysis and design
Back in my earlier days when I was studying systems analysis (ICT), we learned the importance of physically going to the client’s place to spend a few hours (or days) observing the processes and “culture” of the organization, interviewing each employee to understand their needs and wants, as well as to address any particular fear or concern about the systems changes we would be proposing.
Psycho-pedagogy and case studies
I came into contact with the word “anamnesis” when I started studying psycho-pedagogy. This word has many meanings:
- In Philosophy, Plato defined anamnesis for the first time as: the ability to rediscover the knowledge that lives in us (and for him, learning was about recalling that knowledge as reality was a representation of our thoughts )
- In psycho-pedagogy, however, anamnesis is the word used for case history (which includes both physical and mental health history as well as family history, education history and life history of the “case” or child we are meeting with)
When we did our practicum, we met not only with the child but with her family. We were encouraged to meet them at both home and school, to be aware of the child’s natural environment and factors. We worked for 9-12 months with each child and the anamnesis, as well as the entire study and observation period was over 60%: we were not allowed to “design” any intervention until we could thoroughly discuss all aspects of that child.
The same “principles” and practices appear again in Permaculture: you will fail in your design, in your consultations, community work, group dynamics, teaching or project implementation if you don’t take enough time to explore the subject.
A good design is not born from plain enthusiasm (although this is a key component of any Permablitz) : good and perdurable designs which are truly resilient and help the community or the household where they are implemented are designs done after a thorough and careful observation of the land, the elements in the land (or structures), the relationships happening in that land or structures and the story behind that land (or structures), the people and other beings living there, their relationships, needs and assets…
Teaching, career coaching and working with communities:
In teaching, career coaching or social work, we couldn’t jump to “apply” any curriculum, action plan or strategy without knowing first what is going on and collecting stories, facts and perceptions to create a background upon which to start our intervention.
However, this is what our current society and “busy-ness” asks us to do: most decisions and projects, interventions and programs are designed regardless of not only what is happening now, but also, regardless what might happen in the future as a consequence of our acts.
Back in 2009, I recall a young doctor telling me: “you have cancer”…he didn’t ask me how I was doing or what my family situation (or history) was, he didn’t seem to care about my diet, lifestyle or workload. I responded the only way I could: “tell me the next steps”, then I went grocery shopping and in the middle of the store, I broke into tears.
Bad design can do that for people, ecosystems and communities: we are plagued with quick decisions (that may end up being wrong, as it was discovered after my surgery, where the tumor was cleared as benign); one-size-fits-all “solutions” and decisions made miles away from where the challenge or problem is happening (sounds familiar?)
What we are looking for: observation and interaction skills
In all areas in life (be that Permaculture design/education/consultation, curriculum design/implementation, learning difficulties intervention, social work or ICT implementation, to name just some I have experience with) we are looking to answer questions:
- What is present here?
- What was here before? Is anything from that past still present?
- What is currently happening (what are the elements in this play, what are their roles and functions, their interactions, their stories, needs, assets and expectations?)
- What is the vision (is there one? Or would be it evolving from our intervention?)
- What are the priorities?
- What are the resources and tools we currently have? Can we work with them, without bringing external ones?
- What would be the potential impacts of our intervention?
We are all designers, learners and teachers
This is Permaculture vision and wisdom: we are perpetually designing our environments and lives through our decisions and indecisions. We are perpetually learning (and teaching) even when we think we aren’t.
When you face a “problem”, a design project, a pattern of erosion, a new class or step in your life, take a deep breath, stop what you are doing and take time to observe and interact.
“You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing, and dance, and write poems, and suffer, and understand, for all that is life.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti